Historic First Dalit Film Festival
From Suraj Yengde:
History has been made. The First Dalit Film Festival was successful.
Amidst an enthusiastic crowd thronging the screenings at Barnard College (Columbia University) and The New School, the first Dalit Film and Cultural Festival (DALIFF) came to fruition in New York City. The DALIFF, organized by US Ambedkarites, was conceived by the Dr. Ambedkar International Mission, USA (AIM). It aimed to establish an independent genre of filmmaking entitled “Dalit Cinema”.
The festival, which attracted an audience from across the United States and Canada, began at 10 at Barnard College on Feb. 23. Milind Awasarmol, a member of the organizing committee, welcomed the audience and emphasized the importance of holding the festival in New York at Columbia University, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s alma mater. Paying tribute to Raju Kamble, the founder of the AIM, USA, the speech set the tone for the two-day event which showcased 6 feature films, 2 short films, 5 documentaries, 2 documentary trailers and 1 television series from Nepal.
Artwork by noted Dalit artists was exhibited alongside the film screenings as an additional ode to Dalit creativity. Artists include Aditya Chauhan, Ajit Choudhary, Seema Gondane, Vikram Nikose, Vijay Awatare, Shridhar Ambhore, Jaya Dorande, Vaishali Pakhale, Anil Dhurve, Anitha Ranjith, Nitin Bhalerao, Ajay Meshram, Malvika Raj, Vipul Shende, Pravin Tayade, Anand Shende, and Lokesh Kamble. The artwork exhibit, as well as the Dalit literature and journalism display, was handled by the team headed by Nandita Pantawane.
Pariyerum Perumal, a critically acclaimed Tamil language movie directed by Mari Selvaraj and produced by Pa Ranjith inaugurated the festival. In addition, the world premiere of Nagraj Manjule’s Indian National Award-winning short film Paavsacha Nibandh (An Essay About the Rain) received thundering applause from the audience even as they were wiping their tears as the lights were turned back on.
The screening of Kaala held the audience spellbound. As the final credits of Kaala started rolling, director Pa Ranjith received a standing ovation, with the viewers spontaneously chanting “Kaala”.
In his inauguration speech, Dr. Suraj Yengde stated the inspiration behind the film festival: the creative genius of Dalit artists and the global struggle of Arts movement, especially the one led by W.E.B. Du Bois in the early twentieth century through his historical pageant “Star of Ethiopia”. Dedicating the festival to P. K. Rosy, the first Dalit female actress of South Indian cinema, the DALIFF resolved to stand with artists who undergo caste, gender, religious, ethnic and racial repression.
There were two panel discussions that also led to packed auditoriums where panelists spoke in Tamil, Marathi, Hindi and English. In one, the panelist Jayan Cherian, the director of Papilio Buddha, described the casteist sensibilities existing in so-called progressive Kerala where no other Dalit women was cast in a lead role since P. K. Rosy in 1928. He also mentioned that his films have often been censored, including his latest film Ka Bodyscapes.
Nagraj Manjule explained how casteism is rooted in the story-telling that gets represented on the screen in Indian cinema. Manjule gave an example of the representation of villains on screen who is often a Dalit, who is black and is ugly. In the story of Ram, Raavan is the villain. But if we tell the story of Raavan, Ram will be the villain. Responding to an audience member’s question on how to get rid of casteism, Manjule commented that humanism is an apt answer to all forms of discriminatory isms.
Pa Ranjith spoke on the importance of Dalits in cinema. Ranjith’s entry into the cinema grew out of his discordance with the films he watched that did not portray his culture. And, thus he directed and produced movies centering around Dalit pride.
Niharika Singh commented that idealized beauty standards are savarna-mandated. But she never hid her caste identity. Thus, her presence in the industry was unique in many senses.
Jayashree Kamble, a professor at CUNY’s LaGuardia community college, said that the films shown at the festival make a good case for their inclusion in the academic syllabus. Her students mainly belong to marginalized communities whose families come from across the world, and their struggles resemble the themes of films that Dalit artists have produced.
On Day 2, films and documentaries attracted a crowd from Nepal and South Asia region as it showcased a popular series focusing on caste, “Dalan,” that was telecast from 2007-08 on Nepalese TV. At mid-day, a panel moderated by Professor Ashok Gurung of the New School included Dr. Dilip Menon, TV producer Purna Singh Baraily, filmmaker Subodh Nagdeve, lawyer Swati Sawant, Niharika Singh, and Suraj Yengde. The panel discussion involved the connections between their professions (art, academics, and law) and their interest in social justice and fighting discrimination.
In the question and answer segment, the audience, mostly comprised of faculty, students from the filmmaking school and community from around the New York area, expressed their appreciation of Dalit art and thanked the organizers for bringing captivating films with the theme of caste onto a world platform.
The gala on the night of the 23rd honored the guests and other speakers at the event. It recognized the contributions of Pa Ranjith, Nagraj Manjule and Niharika Singh, among many others. Along with the volunteers of the DALIFF and participants, the guests then took to the dance floor to the musical number “zhingaat”.
The festival concluded on 24th February by reiterating its commitment to Dalit Art, Dalit Life and Dalit Pride. Milind T concluded the festival with a vote of thanks.
Tireless efforts for more than a month by the following committee members contributed to the success of this festival – Chetan C, Tushar K, Vivek F, Swaroop T, Shashank V, Lokesh K, Reena K, Jitendra S, Anup M, Jayashree K, Laxmikant R, Mahesh W, Nitin S, Swati S, Chatak D, Shahushakti B and Milind W.
Suraj Yengde, Nandita Pantawane and Jayashree Kamble